Thursday, February 21, 2008

Either way, time to put a woman on the ticket

For the last 30 years, the strength of the Democratic Party has risen and fallen with the health of the women's movement. It's been 24 years since a woman last appeared on the party's presidential platform. Whether or not the nominee is Hillary Clinton, a woman must grace the Democratic ticket. For the sake of the party. For the sake of the movement.

If there's one thing you can say about the modern women's movement, it's that it is not, nor has it ever been, a monolith. Though sometimes derided as a white woman's movement or an upper-middle-class diversion, the feminist movement, in reality, encompasses women across race, class and even national divides. So it comes as no surprise to most that opinions on matters of strategy, or any other manner of things, should diverge widely at times.

For weeks now, a heated debate has taken place between feminists who see an onus to support, based on her gender, the presidential aspirations of Sen. Hillary Clinton, and those who do not. On the eve of the Super Tuesday primary contests, hundreds of feminists signed a statement in support of Sen. Barack Obama, whose nomination would, in a different first, make him the first African American to represent a major party in a presidential election. With the agendas of the two candidates so close in policy terms, the former assert, it's a no-brainer that a feminist supports the woman. Others disagree most forcefully. Sometimes the argument takes on a generational tenor, sometimes there's a racial edge, and sometimes it's just about doing what seems right. But any way you slice it, it's been taking a toll.

You may ask, so what? In the end, feminists will rally around the nominee, whoever that may be, and work to advance that candidate's campaign in the general election. True enough. But after the election comes the time to govern, the time for the movement to step back into its role as the agitator that keeps women's issues on the legislative agenda, and vets appointees for their bona fides as supporters of women's rights. To maintain that role effectively, at a moment when women's rights hang by a thread before a very punitive Supreme Court, any bad blood exchanged between feminist partisans will need to be made good. Should the Democrat lose to the Republican candidate, the need for fence-mending will be made even stronger.

Since the mid-1970s, the health of the Democratic Party has been reflected in the strength of the women's movement. In 1976, three years after Roe v. Wade, and as women made great strides, Democrat Jimmy Carter came to office as a son of the New South, and brought with him a different kind of first lady. With her ladylike demeanor, it's easy to forget the furor that surrounded Rosalynn Carter's unabashed role as her husband's closest adviser, especially when she dared to sit in on cabinet meetings. By 1980, after events in the Middle East turned the nation against Carter, the modern religious right had formed to marshal a backlash against the women's movement, and it was the force of that rage that rode Ronald Reagan into power.

Once ensconced in the halls of power, the right set wedges in what fissures it could find within the women's movement, hammered them hard, and maintained executive power for 12 long years. (Particularly difficult episodes included a feminist divide over how to address the problem of misogynistic pornography, which the right played quite deftly.) The women's movement regrouped and enjoyed a resurgence partly born of the Senate hearing on the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, when allegations of sexual harassment made by Anita Hill, Thomas's former aide, paved the way for the election of record numbers of women to the House and Senate in 1992 -- and the election of Bill Clinton to the White House. Clinton's forceful, attorney wife was controversial from the start, representing that generation of women who had decided to "do it all."

Even after the Clintons took office, it wasn't but two years before right-wing Republicans won the Congress, this time adding to its arsenal of misogynist rage a homophobic strain, as well. With his power constrained by a hostile Congress, Bill Clinton felt compelled to split the difference with congressional foes, signing into law the unconscionable Defense of Marriage Act, which denies federal benefits to gay couples who enter into legal marriages in their home states (only Massachusetts, at this writing, offers marriage to same-sex couples), and a welfare reform act that essentially punishes poor women for having children.

Now, after eight years of war, mismanagement, corporate kleptocracy and serious injury to the Constitution, the world, or at least the nation, is looking like the Democrats' battered oyster. The race is clearly theirs to lose. But unless the women's movement is given its due and brought back together in a meaningful, long-term way, there will be no joy in Mudville, even with a Democratic win. A healthy women's movement equals a strong Democratic Party.

That is why it behooves the Democratic Party to run a woman on the national ticket in 2008, one way or another. If the nominee is Hillary Clinton, the party clearly has that base covered. But if it's Barack Obama, a woman vice presidential nominee would make all the difference. No caveats over who can best deliver which electoral votes. No stammering about how we wish we could find someone qualified for the job. A woman on Obama's ticket could help him win the one group he's said to have most trouble convincing: white women over 50. The Democratic veep doesn't have to be a governor, senator or a member of Congress. She can be drawn from business or the academy. But she must be ready to lead. She must be regarded as the heir apparent.

For in the end, this is how the first woman president is most likely to be elected -- from the platform of the vice presidency. And we're long past due. In 1984, I stood for hours at a rally in Times Square to catch a glimpse of the first woman ever to grace the national ticket of a major political party. I knew in my heart that Geraldine Ferraro's chances for actually occupying the vice presidency weren't good, and I suspected that's why the party decided to give in to us feminists when she was put on the ticket. Walter Mondale, the presidential nominee, really didn't stand much of a chance against Ronald Reagan. Still, my heart pounded at the sight of her; it was the sight of history being made.

That was 24 years ago. A whole generation has been born and graduated college without ever having seen a woman on a the presidential ticket of one of the two major parties. It's almost like it never even happened. And that's not good for anybody.

Sphere: Related Content

No comments: